Becoming a Pharmacologist: Job Description & Salary Information

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The mean annual wage for a pharmacologist is about $90,160. Is it worth the education requirements? Read real job duties and get the truth about the career prospects to decide if becoming a pharmacologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Pharmacologist

A pharmacologist is a type of medical scientist who researches and tests pharmaceuticals. Weigh the pros and cons of this field to decide if becoming a pharmacologist is the best option for you.

PROS of Becoming a Pharmacologist
High mean annual wage (about $90,160 as of May 2014 for all medical scientists, except epidemiologists)*
Employment predicted to increase by 13% from 2012 to 2022 (for all medical scientists)*
Help to improve general human health*
Choice of career paths and specialties*

CONS of Becoming a Pharmacologist
May require 10-12 years of college*
Slower federal funding has increased competition for research grants*
May work with unsafe samples in the laboratory*
Precision is crucial, as research mistakes can lead to incorrect or inconclusive results*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Pharmacologists use their scientific and medical knowledge to work towards curing a wide variety of health problems. In this career, you'll study the effects of drugs in humans and animals. In addition, you may work to standardize medication dosages for pharmaceutical companies. You might also analyze food colorings and preservatives, insecticides and other materials to reveal their toxicity levels. This can entail developing experiments, conducting clinical trials and writing reports about your findings.

In this position, you'll generally work full-time and spend most of your time analyzing reports and data in your laboratory or office. You'll have to follow strict safety procedures, particularly when working with unsafe samples. Another important part of your job might be writing grants for funding from the government. While pharmacologists generally do not have contact with patients in medical settings, some are also medical doctors and might meet with patients participating in clinical trials.

Career Paths and Specializations

If you work at a university, you'll generally be able to work independently, forming your own hypotheses, planning your research and securing funding for your studies. You might have students or technicians to assist you in your work. If you work in private industry, on the other hand, you'd give up some of the freedom to choose your research but wouldn't have to find your own funding. Many pharmacologists work for the federal government, performing research on human diseases.

Some pharmacologists focus on clinical pharmacology, which entails testing drugs on humans in the laboratory and clinical trials. Others focus on medical chemistry and develop chemical compounds that treat illnesses, like cancer or Alzheimer's disease. You could also specialize in toxicology, which is the study of the negative effects of drugs and toxins on humans. Additionally, pharmacologists can specialize in areas of the body, such as in neuro-, endocrine or cardiovascular pharmacology.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the mean salary for medical scientists, including pharmacologists, was approximately $90,160 as of May 2014. At that time, the top paying industries for this occupation were the federal executive branch, specialized design services, both of which paid more than $118,000 on average per year.

The BLS also reports that jobs in this occupation were projected to increase 13% from 2012-2022 due to greater reliance on pharmaceuticals and continuing medical research. Another factor will be the growing aging population, which tends to have a greater need for pharmaceuticals. Most of these jobs were expected to be in the private industry, particularly in the development of biomedical tools and prescription drugs.

What Are the Requirements?

If you're planning to become a pharmacologist, you'll need to start out by earning a bachelor's degree in a biological science. Your coursework would probably include life sciences, physics, chemistry, math and humanities. After you've earned your bachelor's degree, you'll have multiple paths from which to choose.

You could earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a combined Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Ph.D. degree. A Ph.D. program in biological sciences takes about six years to complete. In this program, you'll choose a field to specialize in, like pathology, bioinformatics or genetics. In an M.D.-Ph.D. program, you'd go to medical school for 7-8 years, learning both medical research and clinical skills through in-class, laboratory and clinical instruction.

As another option, you could earn a medical degree instead of a Ph.D. and choose to do research instead of going into practice as a physician. Keep in mind that pharmacologists who give drugs to human patients or who perform any type of invasive procedures must be licensed physicians. To become a licensed physician, you must graduate from an accredited medical school, complete 1-7 years of residency training and pass a licensing examination.

Essential Skills for Pharmacologists

Communication skills are important for this career, because you'll have to explain your experiments and findings to scientists and laypeople, both orally and in written reports. Leadership is another beneficial quality, since you may oversee the staff of an entire laboratory, including other pharmacologists and technicians. Critical-thinking and analytical skills will help you evaluate large amounts of data and solve problems efficiently. You must also have a sharp eye for detail, since much of your job involves precise observation.

What Employers Are Looking For

Education and experience are the main qualifications employers require. They tend to look for applicants who have Ph.D. degrees in a medical science specialty that's applicable to the facility's line of research. Additionally, applicants usually need experience in the employing facility's specific area of expertise, whether through professional practice or postsecondary training. Read the following samples of real job postings in April 2012 for a better idea of what employers are looking for:

  • A medical center in Minnesota advertised for a systems pharmacologist with an M.D. or Ph.D. degree. This employer wanted someone with a proven record of accomplishment in research and publication and a desire to conduct state-of-the-art translational research connected to drug action and variations in drug responses.
  • A pharmaceutical company in California was looking for an in vivo pharmacology team leader for oncology research. This team would be developing and implementing disease models to evaluate novel anticancer therapeutics. Applicants should have a Ph.D. in a related biological scientific discipline with a focus on in vivo cancer research and ten years of prior experience with concepts such as genetic engineering, cell and tumor biology, in vivo imaging and molecular profiling methodologies.
  • A company in Massachusetts advertised for a pharmacologist to devise and run preclinical trials in cardiovascular and renal disease therapeutics. You'll need a Ph.D. in a relevant area and at least two years of experience developing models for renal and cardiovascular disorders.

How to Stand Out in Your Field

There are several steps you can take to gain an edge over the competition in this field. For example, you may benefit from earning a dual M.D.-Ph.D. degree over a singular degree, since this will open you up to a wider array of opportunities. You may also pursue publication, since potential employers often favor applicants who have a proven track record of quality research and have had their findings published in highly regarded professional journals.

Complete Postsecondary Training

In addition to earning your doctoral degree, you might choose to continue your education by completing postdoctoral work with a federal agency, like the National Institute of Health, or at a university. This training provides you with laboratory experience, which is often required by employers. It may also provide you with experience in more specialized techniques that you can apply to other research projects. Postdoctoral training can lead to a permanent position, depending on the facility you work for.

Other Careers to Consider

Histopathologist

If you're interested in a career as a medical scientist, but you don't want to focus on pharmaceuticals, consider another specialty. Histopathology is a career that is also in the field of medical science. It requires similar education and pays a salary comparable to that of a pharmacologist; however, your focus of study would be on animal and human tissue and how certain diseases are caused or progress. The job might entail collecting tissue specimens through autopsies and then examining those specimens to determine the causes of death and progression of diseases.

Pharmacist

If you're interested in medicine and its side effects but don't want to attend school for quite so many years, you might consider becoming a pharmacist. Working in a store pharmacy or hospital, you'll dispense prescriptions and occasionally help physicians in choosing medications for patients. It usually takes six years of education, including undergraduate and pharmacy school. You'll also need to pass an exam to become licensed by your state. According to the BLS, the mean salary for pharmacists was about $112,000 as of May 2011, and employment was expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 25% from 2010-2020.

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